Arts & Events

New: Is the Takács Quartet the Best in the World?

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Sunday March 03, 2019 - 10:42:00 PM


I’m not easily given to nominating anyone for Best in the World. But I have to admit that the thought crosses my mind that the Takács Quartet may well be the best string quartet we have today. I can recall, however, the great Budapest Quartet of the 1950s, the wonderful American quartets of the same period like the Fine Arts Quartet and the Juilliard. But when it comes to today, especially among string quartets we get to hear regularly in the Bay Area, I find the Takács Quartet almost unrivaled, at least since the beloved Cypress String Quartet suddenly disbanded a year or so ago. Lately, the Takács Quartet has given us ample proof of their mastery in two weekend concerts at Berkeley’s Hertz Hall. In last week’s edition of these pages, I reviewed their February 24 concert. Now I’m reviewing their March 3 concert, the last in a series of two. 

For this concert the program consisted of Haydn’s String Quartet in G Major, Opus 76, No 1, Bartők’s String Quartet No. 6, and Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 6 in F minor, Op. 80. What these quartets have in common is, above all, that they are late works in the lives of their composers. Thus, they offer us a chance to hear what a lifetime of experience had taught these composers about writing string quartets. 

In this respect, Franz Joseph Haydn is a particularly revealing case in point. Haydn wrote his Opus 76, No. 1 quartet very late in life, at a time, in fact, when he was also composing his very last work, the ambitious oratorio The Creation. His final symphony, No. 104, was already two years old when he began composing his Opus. 76, No. 1 string quartet. What we find, therefore, in this work is a distillation of everything Haydn had learned both from his own earlier string quartets and from those of Mozart, who died five years before Haydn’s six Opus 76 quartets of 1796.  

Haydn’s Op. 76, No. 1 quartet opens with three chords, after which the cello, here magisterially played by András Fejér, introduces a theme immediately taken up by the other instrumentalists. What ensues is a spirited Allegro full of brio. The second movement, a lovely Adagio, opens with cello and first violin trading lyrical themes. Here the umber tone of András Fejér’s cello is contrasted to the bright, clear tone of Edward Dusinberre’s violin. The third movement is a Menuetto, at least in name, though Haydn turns it into a Scherzo that anticipates much of what Beethoven would later write in the way of assertive, even aggressive scherzos. And in the middle of this Scherzo, Haydn offers us a surprisingly clunky country dance tune. The Finale begins in a minor key but gradually modulates to a major key as it offers a beguiling song. Then the music speeds up, pauses for pizzicato moments, then rushes onward to the finish.  

Next on the program was Béla Bartők’s String Quartet No. 6. This, the last of Bartők’s string quartets, was begun in 1939 at a time when Hitler’s extra-territorial ambitions threatened all of Europe, including Bartők’s native Hungary. To make matters worse, Bartők’s beloved mother was gravely ill. Thus, it is no surprise that this final string quartet by Bartők is full of anguish and pain. (His mother died just as he completed this work, and about the same time Bartők made the decision to leave Hungary for the USA.)  

The quartet opens with a solo lament by viola, here gorgeously played by Geraldine Walther. Then all join in as the music turns agitated and obsessive. By the end of this first movement, a lyrical high point is reached, followed by a peaceful close. The second movement, marked mesto (sad, in Italian), like all four movements, opens with a cello solo, beautifully performed here by András Fejér. Then the music launches into an ironic march and a parodied military tune. Here a central section features pizzicato from the viola, while the cello offers a wild folk-inspired tune. As the march returns, we note a kinship with Mahler’s sardonic march tunes. The third movement opoens with another lament, followed by a burlesque of the march theme. The final movement opens with a dirge-like lament, then delves into deep recesses of pain, marked suddenly by two piercing outcries by the first violin. Then there is a return to the lament that opened the work, and this quartet closes with pizzicato from Geraldine Walther’s viola and Harumi Rhodes’ second violin, ending in a reflective mood.  

After intermission, the Takács Quartet returned to the stage to perform Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 6 in F minor, Op. 80. As program notes remark, this late work by Mendelssohn may surprise the casual listener, for whom Mendelssohn is known as a gifted composer of light music lacking in emotional depth. Here, to the contrary, the work is full of pain and disillusionment. Mendelssohn’s beloved sister, Fanny, herself a gifted composer and pianist, had suddenly died of a stroke at age 41. Felix himself died prematurely within the same year. Is it any wonder, then, that the music of Mendelssohn’s last string quartet is full of anguish and pain?  

Opening with repeated tremolos, followed by three stabbing chords, this work aannounces its pain right from the outset. Moreover, at the close of this movement Edward Dusinberre’s first violin reiterates the stabbing chords as the rhythm accelerates and the music veers at the brink of chaos. The second movement features a brooding, obsessive motif that seems to run headlong toward disaster, though leavened by a quiet, unsettled central section. The third movement, an Adagio, offers profoundly beautiful music that could be interpreted either as a lament or, conversely, a song of gratitude and affirmation. But the final movement could never be taken for anything but an outcry of anguish and pain. The music is often angry, and towards the end the first violin, here performed in virtuoso fashion by Edward Dusinberre, shrieks its pain while the others join in dwelling on their collective grief. This was the Takács Quartet at their best, brimming with intensity yet ever precise in their musical cohesion.  

Errata: In last week’s review of the Takács Quartet’s February 24 concert, I included a note regarding the works to be played at their second concert, Sunday, March 3. Among the works cited, I mistakenly wrote ”the Mendelssohn quartet,” when I meant to say ”the last Mendelssohn quartet.” Somehow the word ”last” got omitted. I apologize for this lapse.